It was inevitable. The visionaries who developed the web likely saw the possibilities early on. The University of Phoenix, Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University and Capella University were among the first movers. At least a decade ago the challenge become obvious to the rest of higher education as the finest universities in the country started putting their course offering online in various ways. Then some traditional institutions like Arizona State University went all in.

Online vs. residential education had become a real choice for students seeking higher education.

The initial focus of online learning in higher education was nontraditional students: working or older adults and those who might want to dabble but were not necessarily pursuing a degree. The vast majority of traditionally aged undergraduates rarely explored their online options, in part because most traditional undergraduate institutions continued to focus their efforts on residential experiences.

Then came COVID-19. The worldwide pandemic has obviously shocked and challenged higher education. It forced an abrupt change in the educational model as faculty and students were forced off campus and online, often in the middle of spring semester. This external shock required all concerned to adjust to a very different mode of teaching and learning — in most cases against their wishes and with decidedly mixed results.

As the pandemic continued into the new academic year, a significant majority of undergraduate institutions have continued to offer online options or at least a hybrid model that combines some teaching face-to-face and some online. Schools who welcomed students back to campus have, in the interests of safety, fundamentally changed the residential experience by limiting activities, requiring masks and social distancing, and implementing draconian changes in classroom interactions. Additionally, virtually every school has contingency plans in place to respond quickly to changes in the public health environment.

The changes for the 2020-21 school year have naturally been implemented more thoughtfully to provide better learning outcomes for students and improved teaching experiences for faculty, but these new educational modes are still fundamentally different from those normally experienced in the traditional residential undergraduate institution.

And here is the silver lining for higher education in this horrific pandemic: We have a natural (or more accurately, an unnatural) experiment that will speed up the reckoning that was coming.

Proponents of online or distance learning have always touted the economies of the model, the much lower costs compared with traditional institutions. Critics have emphasized the significantly different, and to them inferior, learning experience online. Up until March 2020 this discussion had been largely academic. The distance options were limited and few students and families had any real experience or understanding of online learning. No more.

As the world inevitably moves beyond the pandemic and educational institutions adapt to the new normal, students (and their families) will have the ability to ask, “Do I want an online or residential college experience?” Answers will be based in real lived experiences, even if those were often imperfect and sometimes painful. Or as an economist might phrase the question, “How much are students and parents willing to pay for the benefits of a four-year residential experience?”

The benefits of living and learning in community have many dimensions, but I believe for most students the three most striking challenges of moving off campus and online were the loss of campus activities, the fundamentally altered social and intellectual interactions with peers, and the diminished and technologically mediated relationships with faculty. Having lived with this alternative reality, students will have data to bring to bear on the question of how much these experiences are worth. And even the future generations of students who are currently in the K-12 system will have some sense of what education without these residential experiences might be like.

As a liberal arts student, administrator and professor for all of my adult life, I certainly have my own hopes and fears about the future of higher education, yet as an economist, I also appreciate how important thoughtful, well-informed consumers are.

The future choices made at dining room tables and in living rooms across the country and around the world by students and their parents will determine the fate of many institutions and fundamentally shape the future of higher education for decades to come. Those decisions, for better or worse, will now be made with a good understanding of the realities and trade-offs associated with online and residential education thanks to the painful experience of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Michael Hemesath is president emeritus of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., and a professor of economics at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.